The Physician and Sportsmedicine
Menubar Home Journal Personal Health Resource Center CME Advertiser Services About Us


Staying Motivated to Exercise

Bryant Stamford, PhD


Exercise is good medicine. But, no matter how compelling the reasons to work out, sustaining a regular exercise program can be difficult. Excuses range from the plausible ("Exercise is too boring") to the absurd ("I'm in no shape to exercise"). People on a busy schedule can't find the time, and those who have the time won't admit it.

With all the obstacles, is there a way to stick with a program? Yes. Start by reevaluating what you think you know about exercise.

Q. How do you define exercise?

A. In the past, exercise was defined as physical activity that produced aerobic fitness. To qualify, it had to involve large muscle groups of the body (like in the legs), be rhythmic, elevate the heart rate into a "target zone," and keep it there for at least 20 minutes.

This definition limited options to exercises like jogging, power walking, swimming, rowing, cycling, cross-country skiing, and stair stepping. If you didn't like these options, too bad. Other activities like dancing, mowing the lawn, gardening, and light sporting activities were considered useless because they didn't produce high levels of fitness.

Today, research shows that moderate physical activities are worthwhile and are highly effective in managing weight, promoting health, and reducing stress. In addition, there is increased respect for the process of exercise—doing something daily, regardless of the amount of fitness produced.

The key ingredient is movement. Get moving and keep moving, but don't get hung up on the particulars. This approach opens up a smorgasbord of physical activities from which to choose. It also offers a variety of ways to approach activities, which increases the likelihood you can find exercises you will enjoy and sustain as part of your lifestyle (see "Activities to Suit All Personalities," next page).

Q. How do you stay motivated?

A. Selecting an exercise that's right for you is only the first step in successful exercise. Here are proven strategies to help motivate you to start exercising and stay with it.

Develop an exercise habit. It takes weeks to form a habit. So keep at it, knowing the more consistent you are in the beginning, the more fixed your new activity will become.

Top your "to do" list. Reserve a time slot each day for working out, and don't let anything interfere. Not setting a time leaves you vulnerable to trying to find the time, which typically doesn't work. The best time to exercise is the most convenient time for you. Although you may be a "morning person," if mornings are too busy, they simply won't work.

Don't let others lead you astray. Inform everyone of your exercise time and that you would appreciate their respecting your choice. When approached, invite others to either come along or come back later.

Be patient with yourself. Some days you will be more motivated or have more time than other days. When possible, do more. When you can't, do less, or do something different. When you can't exercise for a while because of illness, injury, or demands on your time, back off without guilt. A brief period of not exercising is not a disaster.

Plan ahead. Be prepared to exercise. It decreases the inertia of getting moving when demands arise. If you intend to exercise when you get home from work, for example, change immediately into your exercise clothing.

Team up. Exercising with others can motivate you when you'd rather not. But it can have a down side. A less motivated or less optimistic partner, for example, can drain you. An option is to have an "exercise date" once or twice a week that is special (on weekends, for example), and to exercise alone the rest of the time. Choose the approach that works for you.

Set achievable goals. The more easily you accomplish your goals, the more likely you are to sustain them. Set goals that emphasize the process (for example, exercising daily for 1 month) as well as the product (for example, jogging 3 miles in 30 minutes). When you achieve a goal, reward yourself. Decide on a reward ahead of time to spur you on.

Have fun. Customize your approach to make exercise more enjoyable. For instance, read, watch TV, or listen to your favorite music while pedaling a stationary cycle.

Affirm your efforts. Your subconscious believes what it hears, without reasoning. Affirm out loud each morning (when no one is listening!) that you are vibrant and looking forward to a chance to exercise. Then, when the opportunity for exercise arises, your mind will encourage you.

Listen to your body. If you exercise regularly, your body may at times say no. Take the hint. You may be doing too much, and overtraining can dampen enthusiasm, causing you to quit. Shift to a milder form of exercise, or take a break. A respite may inspire you to come back with renewed vigor and determination.

Complement exercise. In addition to exercising, be sure to eat a low-fat, balanced diet, sleep well, and reduce unhealthy influences like smoking and high stress.

Fast Facts

1. Rethink exercise. You don't always need to pant like a dog. Try playing like a puppy for a change.

2. Cut yourself a break with your exercise program. Sometimes you need to do less. That's OK.

3. Choose activities that fit your personality—or your mood du jour.

Activities to Suit All Personalities

It's a big help to know your personality and choose your exercise to match. Keeping the options below in mind can help you pick an exercise that feels right for you, rather than choosing an activity because you believe you should. You can also mix things up by, for example, including a competitive activity one day, followed the next day by something that's fun or productive.

Competitive. Choose activities that satisfy your nature, such as tennis, racquetball, basketball, volleyball, or soccer.

Playful. Try dancing (any type), in-line skating, ice skating, water or snow skiing, or horseback riding.

Strong work ethic. Getting the job done counts as good exercise. Try mowing the lawn, gardening, doing carpentry or housework, or washing the car.

Loner. Exercise in the privacy of your home, or take a walk in the park, hike a trail, or try tai chi, yoga, or the martial arts.

Social. Mall walking, a golf foursome (without a golf cart), group hikes, and group bicycling are good choices. Join a gym to exercise and socialize.

Goal oriented. Choose traditional fitness activities. Run further and faster, lift more, etc.

Couch potato. Make a commitment to do something, no matter how trivial, every day (eg, climb six flights of stairs, walk to a nearby store). Build on your success.

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Before starting an exercise program, consult a physician.

Dr Stamford is director of the Health Promotion and Wellness Center in the School of Education at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.